The fascination into how this man became who he was has always intrigued many and unlike other killers, Nilsen was not the showman on a stage but actually rather ordinary. Perhaps, he was even an exact reflection of the time period he killed in, 1980s Britain.
Dennis Andrew Nilsen murdered at least 12 young men between 1978 and 1983 in London before being convicted of six accounts of murder and two of attempted murder in 1983. He served life imprisonment until his death in 2018. In this ITV drama, David Tennant manages to capture Nilsen’s personality effortlessly. The passive nature and lack of compassion highlight Nilsen’s own traumatic past but also shocks viewers with his sadistic presence. The monotonous Scottish accent, draws in viewers, presenting subjectivity as fact and reflecting Nilsen’s unnerving detachment from his confessions.
The series starts with documentary footage of the harshness of 1980s Britain for young homeless men, the likes of which became Nilsen’s victims. To be young, queer, and living in London in 1980s Britain was a dangerous game. Nilsen’s victims, those living and dead, were the marginalised underclass of society, the forgotten underclass not believed by the police with their stories. Chief Detective Inspector Peter Jay, played by Daniel Mays, is angered several times by the fact that they missed Nilsen for 5 years despite many people coming forward with evidence that would potentially have lead to an earlier arrest. This, coupled with the fact that Nilsen was ex-police, highlights some serious policing failures that were perhaps caused by prejudices within the service and society at that time.
The moment that sticks in my mind is after a victim of Nilsen, Carl Stottor, has finished testifying. His reputation is brought into question simply for being gay, due to having been a drag queen, and a victim of previous violent relationships. Stottor eventually walks out of the court to be met with a crowd of paparazzi hurling violent abuse and slurs at the young victim. It was incredibly powerful to have watched Nilsen’s manipulation tactics fall into place and effectively ruin the futures of his living victims as well.
Manipulation is Nilsen’s key tactic in attempting to prove his innocence. He first targets the police, with his upright confessions without any names, which he slowly reveals throughout the series. He manages to have them provide him comfort in interviews and luxuries such as cigarettes when in custody. He then goes on to influence a biographer Brian Masters, played by Jason Watkins, by sharing information for his novel ‘Killing for Company’. By the second episode, Masters has been convinced by Nilsen to obstruct police efforts unless forced to cooperate by not handing over relevant details. Masters is so caught up with this man and his story, that he begins to believe his plea of diminished responsibility. It is only towards the end of the final episode where both Masters and the audience realise just how many lies Nilsen has fed us in an attempt to get off a murder charge.
Des does not romanticise or sensationalise this killer's actions and ends with an unsympathetic condemnation of his crimes
Obviously, series portraying serial killers always cause controversy, because of the wanted notoriety by these heinous human beings. But with Nilsen’s death in 2018, lead actor David Tennant felt “relieved” that Nilsen was unable to get this satisfaction from this recent portrayal. There were also decisions taken by the writing and directing team to censor the killings themselves from the series, sparing us from seeing the horrors of Nilsen’s methodical dissections. Des is not a romanticised or sensationalised biopic and it certainly ends with an unsympathetic condemnation of a heartless killer.
Overall, this series is a combination of genius writing, staying true to real life, and fantastic acting. Des leaves its audience wanting to know more about the killer’s motivations and the missing victims and their families for whom their cases remain unsolved. Des is truly a reflection on the society in which Nilsen grew up but perhaps it is a reflection on now and us as an audience to completely fall for the same manipulation techniques and our appetite for such a serial killer once again.